Intellectual integrity hardly seems like the stuff of scintillating cinema, but then I wouldn’t have thought an 11th-century nun who composed chants for her cloistered sisters would be terribly interesting, either.
But the combination of writer/director director Margarethe von Trotta and star Barbara Sukowa can ignite even the most unlikely subject matter. We saw it a couple of years ago with the medieval drama “Vision,” and lightning strikes again with their most recent collaboration, “Hannah Arendt.”
Arendt (1906-1975) was a political theorist and a Jew who fled Germany and its Nazi culture, immigrated to America and became an academic. In 1961 she was assigned by The New Yorker to cover the war crimes trial in Israel of Nazi SS bigwig Adolf Eichmann, who oversaw the logistics of deporting hundreds of thousands of European Jews to extermination camps.
Arendt traveled to Jerusalem expecting to encounter a figure of monumental evil. The man she saw isolated in a glass booth (to prevent assassination attempts) she described as “a ghost who happens to have a cold.”
Eichmann viewed himself as a methodical worker who did his best to complete the job assigned him. Indeed, the prisoner was indignant at finding himself on trial. He believed that in following orders he was doing the right and moral thing.
To describe the defendant Arendt coined a phrase that has entered the modern lexicon: “The banality of evil.” She argued that war criminals are rarely psychopaths; most of them are just ordinary people trying to fit in or get ahead.
Upon publication Arendt’s report unleashed a firestorm of controversy. Some accused her of letting Eichmann – indeed all war criminals – off the hook. Others took particular umbrage at her assertion that the terrors of the Holocaust might have been limited had Jewish leaders in Europe not take a conciliatory approach to the Nazis.
Hate mail was only the beginning of the grief the 56-year-old Arendt endured. Lifelong friends disowned her. She was accused of anti-Semitism. Her academic career was thrown into jeopardy. Israeli security goons showed up to “suggest” she never publish her reportage in book form.
Arendt was particularly dismayed when people who should have known better willfully misinterpreted her thesis.
“Your quest for truth is admirable,” one old friend sadly observes, “but this time you’ve gone too far.”
The question of whether you can go too far in being truthful is at the heart of “Hannah Arendt,” and while that may not sound like the stuff of great moviemaking, this film says otherwise. Hell, it says that being truthful is positively heroic.
Sukowa’s depiction of Arendt makes honesty – honesty to the point of painfulness – not only attractive but an absolute necessity. You come away feeling that while Arendt had a husband and friends and beloved colleagues, nothing was more important to her than her own intellectual honesty. And that attitude made it all too easy for her critics to brand her as “arrogant.”
What’s remarkable about Sukowa’s performance is that it seems almost entirely internalized. Physically about the only thing she does is click her lighter and puff on cigarettes. Her Hannah might be mistaken for emotionless, stoic.
But watch those eyes! The flickers of dismay, amusement, steely defiance – this is a masterful acting but so magnificently understated that it doesn’t attract the sort of praise too often heaped upon unmitigated scenery gnawing.
Though it could have been painfully claustrophobic, “Hannah Arendt” is often amusing, even airy, thanks to a strong supporting cast that includes Janet McTeer as Arendt friend and “The Group” novelist Mary McCarthy; Nicholas Woodeson as the legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, and Alex Milberg as Hannah’s devoted husband, Heinrich Blucher.
Occasionally von Trotta gives us a flashback to depict Hannah’s early life, particularly her affair at university with the philosopher (and Nazi party member) Martin Heidegger.
One of the real strengths of the film is von Trotta’s decision not to use an actor to portray Eichmann but to employ the actual courtroom videos. We see the real man defending himself in real time. Fascinating stuff.